Notes from the Show
In this episode, we join Shawn Freeman, Founder & CEO of TWT Group, Inc., in a discussion how company values help businesses focus, attract talent, make decisions and more:
- How specializing focuses your business on being amazing at one thing instead of OK at everything
- How operating around company values helps build success
- How focus helps you set boundaries, make decisions more easily and avoid situations that don’t match your values
Intro: You’re listening to Dare to Differentiate, a podcast for business owners in crowded industries who want to learn how to rise above the noise. In this show, we focus not on doing everything for everybody, but on doing a few things for the right people with excellence. So, if you’re ready to leave the herd, then you’ve come to the right place. Let’s get into the show.Intro: You’re listening to Dare to Differentiate, a podcast for business owners in crowded industries who want to learn how to rise above the noise. In this show, we focus not on doing everything for everybody, but on doing a few things for the right people with excellence. So, if you’re ready to leave the herd, then you’ve come to the right place. Let’s get into the show.
Susan: Welcome back. I’m Susan Tatum, and today, I’m talking with Shawn Freeman, Founder and CEO of the TWT Group in Calgary. Shawn, welcome to the show.
Shawn: Thanks, Susan. Nice to be here.
Susan: Shawn, before we dig in, to give our audience some context, just tell us a little bit about what you and the folks at TWT do.
Shawn: TWT Group is a managed IT services company. We are basically other business’s IT department. We handle everything for them from support to security and strategy.
Susan: Support, security, and strategy. So, is the strategy like an IT strategy, technology strategy?
Shawn: Yeah, kind of both, obviously but with kind of an operational side of IT but then also on sort of the businesses processes, how they can improve what they’re doing with technology. So, kind of both sides of that coin.
Susan: Ah. Okay. Interesting. So, we’re talking about specializations and the benefit and the challenges that you run across when you do differentiate your firm, and you’ve done that with TWT. That’s what caught my eye and why I reached out to you, so if you don’t mind, let’s start there.
Shawn: Yeah, for sure. I think one of the ways we differentiate ourselves is that we base everything we do on our values and we have a great culture built around those values and that kind of helps us deliver an awesome service that our clients love and they look for us.
Susan: Do they come to you initially because of your values or are the values the reason that they stay and the reason that they refer you?
Shawn: I think a lot of people want to work with other companies that they’re aligned with, and whether or not a company has values, like, listed on their website or not, we do, but say a prospect of ours comes along, even if they don’t have their values listed, they still have them, they just maybe haven’t defined them and they’ll read ours and be like, “Oh, yeah. That’s sort of like us.” And so, I think that really helps us resonate with our customers and prospects and start our offering off on a good foot, not just like, “What’s your price?” Right?
Susan: We all like to avoid that.
Shawn: Yeah, of course, and we’re not a commodity. We sell commodities, but what we do is actually a lot bigger than that.
Susan: So, you’re looking for a relationship.
Shawn: Yeah, 100%. We want to become your best friend. We want to become the trusted advisor, somebody who, when you have a problem, you can come to us and say, “How do I solve this with technology and really make a difference in companies’ bottom line, and not only that, but their growth and where they can go and how they can compete?”
Susan: Well, just listening to you just then, something popped into my head and it’s really the value of the IT expertise to a company now is I would say as high as financial expertise and legal expertise in terms of allowing the company to grow and keeping it safe.
Shawn: For sure, yeah. I mean, security’s such a big thing nowadays. If you don’t have that nailed down and you don’t have a solid foundation there, you can’t really focus on your business, right? Because it’ll keep you up at night. Data’s very valuable and the systems that businesses use to operate, I mean, people can’t operate without computers, internet. You know, even if their internet goes out for an hour, people just aren’t able to work. Nowadays, they can’t even have the excuse, “Oh, I’ll go file some things,” because a lot of people don’t do that anymore.
Susan: That’s true. That’s true. This is off-topic a little bit, but you made me think of during the Thomas Fire down here in Southern California, it was about a year and a half ago – actually, no. It was the fires we had this past year. It burned the local cable providers, one of their big transfer stations for whatever you call it. It took everybody’s cable out. So, that was all the people who had their TV from them, all of the people who had their internet through cable. It was in the fall, so you couldn’t watch a football game, and that went on for like three days because they couldn’t get in this area. And it was so quiet. You know? It was amazing.
Shawn: Yeah. You know, once you don’t have it, you realize how much you actually use it and how much you can’t do without it, right? You can’t even pay for things anymore.
Susan: Oh, that’s true. Very, very true. So, looking at your website, I can see that you also focus on a geographic location and size of company, right?
Shawn: Yeah. So, we generally don’t work with companies that have an internal IT department. We kind of take that whole role over and we’re accountable usually to the CFO or the Operations Manager. So, our client size is generally between ten and about 250 employees size. With more and more cloud stuff, that number keeps going up as people move to the cloud and there’s less on a server to manage.
For geography, we focus on that just because we’re based in Calgary, Alberta with some of our services onsite, but we do have clients that have branch offices across Canada and then, you know, we actually have a client in Boston, we’ve got a few clients in the US as well in other states and cities. So, it really depends on where they are in their technology journey. If they’re kind of cutting-edge, full cloud, you know, the worst thing that could go wrong that they need somebody onsite for is their laptop has an issue, and most of the manufacturers nowadays have kind of like onsite warranty for that. So, we can really service those types of companies no matter where they are, really.
Susan: So, have you found that there was no need to focus on specific industries, or do you do that as well?
Shawn: There are some IT companies that do niche. They get into a certain niche and focus on that. We haven’t found that we need to do that. We haven’t had any trouble growing, you know, and if we did, maybe we would look at that just to kind of specialize. We do have certain groups in our company that they are the experts at a certain industry software, so we do have that sort of internally, but we don’t focus on a specific niche. We’re pretty diverse actually and Calgary’s kind of known as the oil city in Canada and we actually don’t have a lot of oil and gas clients. It’s actually pretty few. We only have a couple of them.
Susan: So, you’re letting everybody else go after them while you take the others?
Shawn: Not necessarily. We’re always looking for more of a fit with customers. If a company comes to us and says, “Hey, you know, we need IT support and we’re looking to get acquired within the next year or two,” we’re kind of in it for the long term, so we probably wouldn’t pursue that sort of a lead. But if a company wants to grow and they want an IT provider for the rest of their business’s life, that’s sort of the target we want to go after, and really back to that relationship piece, is just build that for the long run.
Susan: What’s your average client length that they stay with you?
Shawn: Well, we’re going to be eight years old in October, and we’ve got clients that have been with us since the start still. It’s really a matter of how long they’re around for. I mean, we don’t have a lot of turnover for clients. Our focus is always on the service side of things, so we don’t obviously want to give them a reason to need to search around and we keep our offering competitive both in what we include and then also the cost-wise. I mean, you know, we’re not going to be double the competitor or something like that, but we’re going to provide the value that we charge for.
Susan: That’s the most important thing.
Susan: What do you think the major advantages are that you’ve gotten from specializing?
Shawn: Just specializing and just kind of focusing on what we’re good as it just that: it’s focus, right? Like, people – there’s a thousand different areas of IT and we could focus on a dozen of them if we wanted to, but doing that, you kind of spread yourself thin and we wouldn’t get amazing at one thing, we would be okay at everything. And so, we’ve sort or just set that focus and, you know, everybody’s happy.
Susan: Focusing like that, does that kind of free your mind from wandering into other areas? You were just talking about there are so many things you could focus on and it would spread you too thin. Do you find that once you make a decision that, “This is where we’re going to focus,” then it’s easier to let the other things go?
Shawn: Yeah, for sure. You can kind of set those boundaries. It’s sort of like any decision that we make. Back to our values. If it’s a fairly big decision, we always look at our values and say, “Does this support our values?” and if it does, the answer’s really easy, and if it doesn’t, then it’s an easy no. But, back to specializing and focusing, it’s the same sort of idea, right? If you know what you’re good at and you know what you do, then it’s easy to say, “No, we don’t do that.” Oftentimes, you can find and make really good partnerships with other people who are great at that and you can kind of build relationships in other ways while not trying to do something that you might not be good at.
Susan: So, you have strategic partners that you can pass people on to when they need something that’s outside of your wheelhouse then?
Shawn: Yeah, for sure. I mean, because people come to us for solutions and if we don’t have it, we want to at least know somebody that is good at that piece and introduce them and then that provides value itself, right? They don’t have to do the homework and search for somebody and hope they’re good.
Susan: Yeah, to the extent where you can help point them in the right direction, I think it’s a great service to provide whether or not it comes back to you. It will at some point.
Shawn: Oh, for sure. And those partners are kind of looking out for us, too. If we’re sending business their way, you know, it’s –
Susan: Yeah. I should hope so.
Shawn: It’s human nature to try to reciprocate, right?
Susan: Yeah, that’s one of those laws of reciprocity. It’s one of the laws of attraction or laws of persuasion or something in some book I read. And I’m sure it was a very important book because I remember part of it.
Shawn: Of course.
Susan: Not the name. At what point did you decide where your focus was going to be? The value thread there I think if very interesting because I don’t hear a lot of people talk about it with the sincerity that you are. Where does your focus on value come from?
Shawn: I think our focus on our values, it just came from just digging in and doing a bit of experimenting and learning and kind of figuring out like who we are as a company and why we do what we do. And I think once we figured that out and once we kind of put our values on paper, they just kind of clicked. And then we started to see, okay, well after you have them in place, then you can start to exercise them sort of like a muscle. You keep using them and you keep reaffirming them and you make decisions around them and it sort of just keeps getting bigger and bigger.
Values are one of those fluffy words, right? People think, like, “Oh, you just make it for marketing,” but if you actually operate around them, then that’s where you kind of get to see the gold because then you can make decisions easier, people can be like, “Oh, these are this companies’ values. I can see them acting around them and I really resonate with them, so I’m going to do business with them.” Once you put it in practice, you start to see the results and I think that just kind of reaffirms using them and continuing down that path.
Susan: How did you know how to do that? Did you read books or have professional help?
Shawn: We actually engaged an HR consulting company called Elevated HR, just a local company in Calgary, and they led us through some exercises around them and really kind of opened our eyes to them.
Susan: Was their specialty in values or their specialty was in helping you find what your specialty is?
Shawn: I think their specialty was more about like HR in general, and I think one of the pieces that they saw that we were missing was just our values in relation to our staff.
Susan: So, there must have been some challenges along the way that you ran into.
Shawn: Oh, for sure. I mean, it’s a business. Getting it off the ground didn’t just kind of fall together. Yeah, there are always challenges, both in the past and I’m sure there will be more in the future. You know, that’s just kind of a given, and as a business owner, you eventually learn to just accept that.
And then I think, yeah, on the flip side, too, it’s just back to the values. If you have a problem come up and you have solid values that you really believe in and you follow them, it’s really easy to sort of navigate around problems in relation to your value, right? You kind of have sort of a focal point to begin with.
Susan: Did you ever find yourself in a situation where it was really tempting to take on client that maybe didn’t have that same value thing or just your instincts were telling you it was wrong but you had to kind of fight about it.
Shawn: Oh, for sure. Yeah, all the time. We say if a client won’t come to our office to review a proposal, then it’s not really a fit. We have a whole bunch of different qualifying things like that. If we don’t feel we could go and sit down and have a beer with a client, then we won’t be able to build a relationship with them. If all they’re asking us for is price, then obviously, they’re not really interested in growth; they’re interested in saving money and maybe not improving their security or liability.
Susan: That’s interesting that you want them to come to your office. Is that even if they’re in Boston or someplace out of town?
Shawn: No, not necessarily in Boston. But yeah, I mean, if we’re in Boston for a conference or something, we’ll take them out for dinner or drinks and, yeah, really focus on that but the majority of our clients are local.
Susan: One of the things that’s coming through in talking with you is that you have a focus on creating these personal relationships in a very human way in an industry that I think has a tendency to put so much into the technology that we lose those human connections.
Shawn: Yeah. No, for sure. And I think you can go find another vendor for any service out there, right? But I think even if you have to pay a bit more in monthly service billing but you can actually build a relationship with a vendor, I think your end result will pay for that difference because if you have the relationship, they can really start to get to know your business, right?
Susan: Yeah. And then the know, like and trust factor, too, that we all like.
Shawn: For sure. Well, yeah, and what we do, I mean, trust is key, right? They need to trust that we’ve got their data backed up and secured and, really, even if they wanted to verify it themselves, they wouldn’t have the skill set to do so.
Susan: Yeah, that’s very true. What advice would you give to other business owners out there who are maybe trying to focus or they’ve hesitated to do so for whatever reason?
Shawn: I’m sorry, if they’re trying to do what?
Susan: To focus. Maybe they’re trying to focus and they’re finding it difficult to do or they don’t know where to start.
Shawn: I mean, as entrepreneurs, we all have the shiny things syndrome, right? So, I think the way I’ve learned to focus myself is just to say, “Okay, well, what’s most important right now? What’s my priority and what am I good at?” and then kind of go in that direction. As things come up that are things I could do but maybe not my focus, you know, start to try to find solutions for those people and introduce some. I think all it takes is one or twice to, like, say no to something and pass it off and then realize, “Oh, I’ve got all this other free time to put into what I should be doing and I’m good at,” that’ll just reaffirm your decision and then you kind of prove to yourself, right?
Susan: Yeah. I certainly find that to be true. Sometimes, it’s hard to get started, though.
Shawn: Yeah, and I think –
Susan: But once you do, it’s your path.
Shawn: Your path again. It’s that, right? You’ve just got to experiment and I think business is a lot about experimenting and changing things and trying new things, and once you do that, then you kind of see the results and if it makes sense, you just keep going with it.
Susan: Well, that certainly rings true. Shawn, thank you so much for sharing your experience with us today, and I know our audience will get tremendous value from what they’ve heard. If anybody who’s listening wants to stay connected with you or to learn more about TWT, what’s the best way for them to do that?
Shawn: They can find TWT at TWTGroup.ca and then just on Twitter as TWTGroupInc and then myself, my website’s ShawnFreeman.ca and then social media just under Shawn Freeman as well.
Susan: All right. Well, thank you again. I think that wraps it up.
Shawn: Thank you for hosting me.
Susan: I appreciate it, and take care.
Shawn: Yes, you too. Have a good afternoon.